From the Stars Back to Our Cities, Where We’ve Never Felt So Small: Kakukaku Shikajika

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Autobiographical effort of Higashimura Akiko, a mangaka celebrated for her sassy and stylish romps about the modern girl, caught many off guard through turning her gaze inward with the profoundly cathartic Kakukaku Shikajika. It is a work far removed from the effortless extravagance of Higashimura’s usual fare starring models flitting about sipping cocktails and quirky mavericks living on the fringes of society, instead introducing Hayashi Akiko, a slovenly teenager ambling through the sleepy coastal village of Miyazaki in the early ’90s. Head firmly in the clouds and elevated beyond by shoujo whimsies, what drags her back down to earth with a resounding crash is Hidaka Kenzou – an eccentric art teacher in the community. Hidaka openly criticizes Hayashi’s skills as soon as she steps into his classroom, appalled that such an amateurish individual could possibly have their sights set on attending an arts university the following year. As Hayashi quickly comes to learn Hidaka is quite the character, whacking students with a bamboo sword like it’s going out of style, unleashing mercilessly caustic jibes on young and old alike. It’s chaotic, and you’d never think that someone as frivolous like Hayashi would stay…

Kakukaku isn’t merely a charming origin story documenting the rise of one of the most prolific female mangaka in contemporary times, instead an achingly remorseful reflection on lived experiences and deep regrets harboured. Every time she purchases a beer after fighting against a deadline, every time she sees fruit in the supermarket, every time she returns to her childhood home and sees a vase, regret’s shadow lies long and heavy.

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As tends to be the case with adolescent metacognition, Hayashi is concerned with her own internal preoccupations; placed high upon a pedestal without once caring to look down at the exertions of those who erected it. “To err is human” after all, leading the reader to reflect on a period where brattish indifference was admired, authoritative figures extending a helping hand or offering a warm word shunned. Kakukaku’s close examination of this critical period defined by obliviousness is no different, Higashimura accounting for a form of egocentricity facilitated by the kind-hearted residents of Miyazaki forever flattering our narrator, believing that she can do no wrong. Languishing in a flower bed fashioned out of roses plucked from shoujo manga, Hayashi’s notions of what could be considered ‘art’ extends to the genre’s starry-eyed darlings swathed in frills, glitter strewn about pages eagerly devoured. Stepping inside Hidaka’s classroom for the first time however lays waste to those idyllic constructs, resulting in her realizing that art isn’t conjured forth from the ether through lofty airs and graces but dredged from one’s soul, innards and skulls lining his shelves real and tangible. It’s an incident which shakes the haughty teenager to her core, setting a precedent for a most curious mentorship as she strives to let go of insular preoccupations along the winding road to emotional maturation.

Higashimura’s lively illustrations and sense of comedic timing elevates Kakukaku’s material beyond traditionalist autobiographical fare, imbuing it with a sense of the humane through drawing on lived experiences. Although a degree of exaggeration underlies a number of the wackier exchanges, they nevertheless fall within the established margins of Hayashi’s reality. Given the subject material its light-hearted intermissions are appreciated; ignorant child poignantly juxtaposed with meditative adult standing in her kitchen, lost in the annals of time and youthful digressions. Ruminative observations linger purposefully between her and Hidaka, establishing moments such as his encouraging her to drown her sorrows after a failed entrance exam relatively merry yet annotated with a rueful note that it must have been the first and last time he ever set foot in a bar. Far removed from the narrative confines, lying beyond helpless, Higashimura desperately wishes to return to that one moment and down the drink he poured for her – even taking a single sip would do. Her sorrow is palpable, reflecting on missed chances and lost opportunities… If only they took a quick turn while bickering one day, they could have drunk in the rich sights of the ocean, in all its glittering expanse. If only she wrote a letter to him, the thought never crossing her mind although it did for someone else who admired Hidaka. If only, if only.

If only.

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As Hayashi marvels at the sight of a snow-covered landscape, this white expanse dotted with black placed in wistful contrast to Miyazaki’s bucolic quality, she strains her mind wondering if she wished that Hidaka could have seen it. It is a rhetorical question poised with sombre undertones, as an adult wishing to take him to the far reaches of the world he only ever saw in reference material. Unlike potentially disingenuous pieces concerned with similar coming-of-age narratives, Higashimura seldom glosses over youthful misdemeanours which imbues Kakukaku with a welcome sense of authenticity. Fretting over exams only to skip class and drink the night away hits home with startling acuity, lazing about and admonishing herself throughout. And so Hayashi is seized with this inexplicable fear, no longer able to paint as opportunities slide further and further away, a pristine white canvas haunting; a snow-covered landscape called into question. As one matures they gain a more sophisticated manner of metacognitive awareness, able to substantially reflect on youthful transgressions, negotiating with the past as they strive to better themselves as an individual. You cannot help but wince every time Hayashi holds up a mirror that invites the reader to assess their own mistakes of youth, all the times they cast aside others at the expense of themselves, locked in egocentric preoccupations. And it’s brutal.

Despite briefly enjoying a stint at life-drawing as a teenager, charcoal-covered fists softening out sooty smudges into anatomical shapes thrilling me each time, it was not something taken beyond those awkward years. Although I gave it up not too long after starting university, a box with broken sticks of charcoal and hastily wrapped putty rattling around in the dusty attic of my childhood home, if I were to hold a pencil up and squint at someone sitting before me I’d be able to get a structural skeleton down in moments. I am not an artist and never will be, Wacom tablet and half-baked notions of drawing obscure favourites later abandoned as well, which is a sentiment that no doubt rings true for most that will stumble upon Kakukaku. And yet Higashimura has such a knack for the human condition that it would be remiss to write off her agonizingly personal memoir as a Manga 101 guidebook, something to be casually flicked through by those interested in picking up tricks of the trade. What elevates it beyond normative autobiographical modes of expression is its positing excruciatingly transparent delineations that any living and breathing individual will be sure to find themselves affected by, a Kokoro for our times. Although its initial stages depict Hayashi’s efforts getting into university, it isn’t long before glittering shoujo idealism fades as she attempts a personal negotiation of nascent developmental schemata; dried paint on a palette and manga forgotten, a sleepy rural village fading into the distance. Time slips by and coursework is left abandoned. Friends drop out of university. She continues to waste her parents’ money, buys clothes she really shouldn’t, and happens to fall in love for the first time. What Hayashi does is live.

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As the colder months settle in, the presence that unwaveringly stood by her side when no one else would fades into transient wisps coiling around her conscious, a suggestion of the past with no place in her present. A speck on this delicately fashioned existence where the notion of hard work is reviled, cool dismissal preferred. Hayashi avoids Hidaka, maddening in her immature proclivities considering he was the only person that ever helped her. The only person able to dispel the fog suffusing her mind once she returns to her childhood home in tears, unable to do a thing – but is her attitude something that the reader should cast judgement on? Never growing beyond those egocentric preoccupations, Hayashi continues to harm those that care about her which culminates in an excruciatingly awkward visit where Hidaka leaves after just one painful, painful day, leaving an expensive bottle of alcohol and regrets behind. In another world, another life where our frustrating narrator knew better he surely would have stayed for a number of days, joyously discussing art with her friends long into the night, she muses. Not hidden out of sight like some sordid skeleton in her closet. And so our own skeletons come tumbling out, reminding us that we’ve all been right little shits through callous avoidances and careless words. The things which come to mind late at night when sleep is a distant prospect, causing you to curl in on yourself a little more no matter how much time has passed.

Reality isn’t a concept that Hayashi is familiar with until she graduates in the midst of Japan’s Lost Decade, a period characterised by social upheaval with future opportunities dismal. That she doesn’t smoothly transition to a glitzy manga studio is evocative of the zeitgeist’s struggles, only managing to secure a position at a call centre through family connections once possibility after possibility falls though. Reality isn’t this tangible concept garlanded in magnificent flowers appearing on a Bouquet cover, instead cold to those who dream. It is in the midst of crisis however, where Hayashi is pushed to her limits both emotionally and physically she at last finds the drive to persist. After avoiding making a decision for years, frightened of confronting Hidaka, an interrogation of art and its inherent ephemerality flourishes as classical and ostensibly frivolous mediums wage war in her heart. Both manga and painting mercilessly appraise the artistic and economic benefits of the other; a little girl adorned in ribbons and a Tezuka beret victorious with her contest winnings, condemning the painter whose exertions fuelled by blood, sweat, and tears are considered inadequate by the world at large.

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Hayashi’s markedly contemporary struggle is placed in sharp juxtaposition to Hidaka’s, a brilliant artist unrecognized despite all the beautiful pieces on display in his classroom. With naked cynicism suffusing Kakukaku’s interrogative leanings, through Hayashi’s conflicting interests the narrative tacitly invites the reader to wonder if there truly is any point in laying one’s creative soul bare when it is in inevitably doomed to be cast aside, never appreciated. Many of the students that Hidaka teaches will eventually lose interest in art, the delight left behind in their teenage years as they become enamoured by shinier and newer pursuits – just as I had, tools hurriedly packed up and never given a second thought. How tragic it is that Hidaka would spend the remaining months of his life instructing those that will eventually lose sight of it all, those that will eventually cease caring. His students don’t want to be esteemed figures proudly displaying their artistic corpus in a gallery, marveling over the old masters. They flippantly doodle illustrations in the margins of their notebooks, they produce turgid one-shots ripping off other mangaka, they drink the night away as paint on a palette dries, they pointedly ignore phone calls – “we’re not the type of people you think we are”, she says.

Unbeknownst to Hidaka, the emotional rift between him and Hayashi only continues to widen as she takes up a position alongside him teaching in their sleepy hometown. Dubious grey moralities and truth twisting prevent her from candidly addressing it, half-hearted attempts at honesty refuted in an instant because when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t want to upset him. The chasm widens exponentially as Hayashi’s manga career kicks into gear and she’s brushing shoulders with figures such as Yazawa Ai, on the verge of leaving Hidaka behind yet again. Throughout he is yet is another one of Miyazaki’s kind-hearted, compassionate residents that never doubts her, even while he’s cheerily discussing a future joint exhibition of theirs, while she’s renovating his home, while they bicker and laugh together. From Kakukaku’s achingly remorseful beginnings you know where Higashimura’s reflections are taking the reader, yet it’s still heart-wrenching when Hidaka speaks about his lung cancer. That she’s the first person he’s told. That he refuses to be hospitalized, wanting to paint until the very end. All he wants is for her to help the remaining students get into university.

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There was once a time when I had been conflicted about the notion of moving to a different country, anxiety digging its claws into my back as I was left drowning in insidious what-ifs and buts. Yet a trip to a local café one summer morning, surrounded by all these aged semi-familiar faces painted an unnerving portrait of a future I felt certain would one day swallow me up; claws irremovable. Gripping my cup a single thought formed, searing in its urgency: leave. As much as I found myself wincing at Hayashi’s treatment of Hidaka, chastising her alongside the remorseful Higashimura beyond the work’s narrative confines, a mirror was once again held up to my own psyche, provocative in its stark severity for I found myself empathizing with her. Wishing for Hayashi to waste away in her rural village is unrealistic and hopelessly cruel, almost as cruel as her abandoning Hidaka- things don’t go like a film or drama for them, she says. Nothing does. But that’s just how life is. We’re all shitty people trying to get by, weighed down by regrets. Wide awake in a dark room when it seems like the rest of world has lapsed into restful slumber. Stomach churning as you grip your cup a little tighter, silently apologizing.

The fragments of Hidaka left behind – a vase of sorts, a painting – all gently integrate into Hayashi’s life. She was saved by the art he passed on to her, offering her a flicker of hope in the midst of darkness, in the midst of cataclysmic events such as divorce and childbirth. If she just draws, she feels like she can overcome anything. Although I have long since abandoned returning to any artistic pursuit, there are other things in life which sate me, which serve as an impetus to do better and press on. And for those, I am grateful.

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